Concluding a recent series of 12 articles on “Being Reformed”, Rev. S. de Marie writes about what is not being reformed. In the last of these he asks: “How does the reformed belief differ from the conviction of members of other groups and churches that also emerged from the Great Reformation of the sixteenth century?” Many have the name Reformed in their titles but, while we may recognise elements of faithfulness in these religious bodies, we also need to distinguish the errors and be able to address them if possible. Although Rev. de Marie does that very briefly in just one article, we can learn from his brief but pertinent remarks in what follows.
BEING REFORMED – WHAT IT IS NOT [i]
Rejecting infant baptism
Rev. de Marie said that following the Great Reformation of the 16th Century the reformers saw the need to distance themselves from the Anabaptists. Their spiritual descendants are today’s Mennonites and Amish in North America. Traditionally, they place a lot of emphasis on an “inner light”, a spiritual experience, such as dreams or other new revelations, in addition to or instead of Scripture. They also reject infant baptism (contrary to what we confess in Belgic Confession Art. 34 and H.C. Lord’s Day 27). They have strict rules of behaviour, as their members are expected to be perfect. The world is seen as a kingdom of nature, and the church as a kingdom of grace. In the past this has resulted in disobedience to the civil authorities (contrary to our BCF, Art. 36), and a disdain for the oath (contrary to what we confess in Lord’s Day 37), a diminished regard for marriage and an adherence to pacifism.
This group, says Rev. de Marie, must be distinguished from so-called Reformed Baptists. These originated from the Puritans, a movement that, after the Great Reformation, wanted to purify the church internally. Do these Baptists rightly call themselves reformed? Not while they reject infant baptism and have an incorrect doctrine of covenant and church (their views of church reflect denominationalism, or pluralism). Hence their teaching about the church goes directly against our reformed confession. Like other evangelicals, they also over-emphasise a personal relationship with God and Christ at the cost of the communal, congregational relationship.
A second group Rev. de Marie identifies is the Remonstrants, also called Arminians. They belong to the movement that stems from the struggle the church waged in the seventeenth century, and from which we get our Canons of Dort. Remonstrants reject the doctrine of double predestination (both divine election and reprobation) and instead believe in election based on [foreseen] faith. They defend the Pelagian idea that after the fall into sin man has a free will.
Furthermore, says Rev. de Marie, they promote the doctrine of universal atonement, the notion that everyone can be saved. They permit freedom of doctrine and do not bind themselves to a confession. They also have a tendency towards pacifism.
Then there are the evangelicals. Evangelicals cover a wide variety of directions, ranging from “Bible-faithful” to liberal. A common characteristic of these, says Rev. de Marie, is the emphasis on a personal or individual relationship with God rather than a covenant relationship. Their view of the church varies from indifference to the church to pluriformity (accepting various churches as standing together). They do not want to be bound to a confession of faith, with the result that all kinds of errors can easily take hold. Most of them divorce the Old Testament from the New Testament, leading to an erroneous view of the current state of Israel and to millennialism (a teaching about the thousand year reign). Much more could be said about the evangelical movement, adds Rev. de Marie, and he hopes to give it special attention later, since this movement is a threat to the church because of its personal approach. It has, he adds, been a powerful influence in the decline of the Reformed Churches.
Liberal and pluralist
What characterises churches that want to be called reformed but actually permit liberal ideas? These are churches, says Rev. de Marie, which show freedom of doctrine and do not sufficiently maintain discipline. As a result, he adds, they do not meet the characteristics of the true church (Art. 29 NGB). The extent to which this happens differs. For example, in the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN)—a merging of the Dutch Reformed Church, the (synodical) Reformed Churches and Lutheran Churches—a majority can be called liberal. Rev. de Marie calls churches, that on the one hand adhere to confessional and Scriptural truths but on the other hand permit liberal views, ‘pluralist’ because that is where the lie is given a place next to the truth. He sees examples of such pluralist churches in our former Dutch sister churches (the GKv – which no longer exist as a separate entity), the Netherlands Reformed Churches (the former ‘buitenverbanders’)) and the Christian Reformed Churches (Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken). It is yes and no in these churches, he says; the lie being given a place next to the truth. Although they have the Three Forms of Unity there is a toleration of errors such as: dialectical theology (Karl Barth), universal atonement, denial of the historical reliability of Genesis 1-11, an alternative atonement doctrine, and a wrong doctrine about the Second Coming (eschatology). Furthermore, in practice they accept or tolerate unscriptural practices such as: women in office and children at Holy Supper; and practising homosexuals are permitted to be office bearers, to marry and to participate at Holy Supper.
What are the characteristics of experiential churches (most of which have the name ‘reformed’ in their titles) and what is our reformed response to them? Here, too, says Rev. de Marie, we must be brief, though he adds that he hopes to pay more attention to the ideas of these churches on the website (see footnote link).
I’ll skip the names of these churches as they’re not well-known outside the Netherlands. However, some of these characteristics are found in English speaking churches. One of these is the search for certainty of salvation within oneself. The result is that people struggle with uncertainty and ask themselves: Am I chosen; am I really saved? The reformed faith, on the other hand, stresses the reliability and certainty of God’s covenant promises for believers.
Experiential preaching promotes passivity, of waiting for an experience of true repentance and faith. In addition, adds Rev. de Marie, it leads to fear that you will be lost even if you believe in Christ. This is related to the peculiar covenant vision in these experiential churches. According to them, God made the covenant with Christ and the elect. Moreover, simply believing is not enough, you have to find certainty within yourself to know if you are chosen.
The reformed faith, on the other hand, refers to the importance of accepting God’s promises and obeying God’s covenant requirements in order to be saved by grace. The reformed faith holds to the complete certainty that God’s covenant has been made with believers and their children. Those covenant promises are reliable.
In these experiential congregations the view of the church is pluriform, says Rev. de Marie, and there is a lot of work “over church walls”. Our reformed faith, however, professes the true church and emphasises the need for unity in truth.
There is also a tendency towards world avoidance in experiential churches. As reformed people we, however, recognize that whilst being distinct from the unbelieving world as churches, we have a cultural mandate to fulfill on this earth.
Lastly, Rev. de Marie, refers to Presbyterian churches. Presbyterian churches (such as OPC, or Free Church of Scotland) have the Westminster Standards as a confession. But, adds Rev de Marie, their members are not bound by this confession. Even office bearers in a number of Presbyterian churches are bound only by its main lines (“System of Doctrine”). The Presbyterian doctrine of the covenant includes two types of covenants: a covenant with the elect, and a covenant with the believers. Rev. de Marie says that their doctrine of the church includes two types of churches: the invisible church and the visible church. This easily leads to pluralism, he adds. According to the Presbyterians “evangelical churches” are also legitimate churches, albeit non-reformed, and like branches of one tree are “more or less pure churches of Christ”. Its own members may adhere to a non-reformed doctrine, such as Remonstrant or Methodist. They have a so-called open Holy Supper, says Rev. de Marie, which means that non-members and non-reformed people are also allowed to participate. Their church structure is different from the reformed view: for example, not the church council, but a council of elders and ministers in a “region” (classis) has the authority to confirm ministers in their office.
We thank Rev. de Marie for these brief but important distinctions. It is our prayer that the Lord of the church, our Saviour Jesus Christ, may give us faithfulness to Him in upholding the true doctrine, and application of it, in His congregations. May His church continue to reform itself according to the norms of God’s holy Word and the true confessions and so be “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).